Our Housing Crisis Is Out Of (Local) Control

Unpacking the mythology of local control through the lens of housing movements and actions in Forest Hill and the Mission

Not In My Backyard, Forest Hill Edition

Earlier in 2018, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development dropped a proposed development in Forest Hill that would have changed the lives of 150 low-income, formerly homeless seniors by providing them with permanent, affordable housing. The city and Supervisor Yee’s stated reason for torpedoing the development was that the project, which was to be funded by monies from a $310 million housing bond, had run into an “unexpected cost” of $1.5 million. Given that the additional $1.5 million — needed to ensure structural stability on a hillside — was not even 1% of MOCD’s 2015–2016 annual budget, it is easy to speculate that the cost was not the real reason. The real reason, as reported in the press, was pressure from wealthy neighbors. Rich people didn’t want affordable housing in Forest Hill and, like so many times before, they got what they wanted.

What happened with the Forest Hill development was a classic case of NIMBYism (the acronym stands for “Not In My Backyard”), in which wealthy homeowners, motivated by their class prejudice and a desire to protect their property values, organize to stop low-income housing in their communities. This is a story we’ve heard over and over again; it has become a parable told to persuade us of the evils of local control, the idea that communities should be able to make decisions about the shape of their built environment. The Forest Hill example is classic NIMBYism: the City tried to build housing for those who need it most, and then, predictably, a handful of rich people stopped it from being built. The rich’s aversion to subsidized and public housing is so ingrained in our society that California has an anti-public housing clause in its state constitution. And yet public housing is exactly the type of housing that we so desperately need in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area: according to the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Projectsubsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate housing at relieving displacement pressures on a regional level.

Plaza 16: Saying No To Erasure And Gentrification

A few miles across town from Forest Hill, over in the Mission District, another local group, the Plaza 16 Coalition, has been organizing for the last five years to stop another large-scale development. This story sounds ominously familiar, and yet, it is absolutely critical to understand how the work of Plaza 16 is so different from what happened in Forest Hill. Plaza 16, a coalition of close to 100 organizations, deeply rooted in and highly representative of the Mission, has raised concerns that a proposed market-rate development at 16th and Mission would exacerbate the gentrification crisis that has been plaguing the Mission for the last two decades. Plaza 16’s concerns have been corroborated by the Urban Displacement Project, which confirms that high-end construction can cause hyper-local displacement in gentrifying areas(see also this MIT paper).

Yes, both the Plaza 16 Coalition and Forest Hill homeowners exercised their right to local control by voicing their opposition at the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. But here is where the story of Plaza 16 and that of the wealthy Forest Hill homeowners part ways. The struggle of Plaza 16 is not just in opposition to luxury development, it is also FOR the creation of the deeply affordable housing that the neighborhood so desperately needs. Plaza 16 is a coalition founded by organizations which have worked in the neighborhood surrounding the proposed development for many years. It is an expression of a neighborhood with a militant political history, which has been fighting its own erasure, and which has demanded, and won, over 700 units of affordable housing since 2011.

On a surface level, both Forest Hill and the Mission are “stopping housing” by asserting their claim to local control As such, they are both characterized as NIMBYs, or “anti-housing,” by their opponents. But the class realities of their respective situations could not be more different. On the one hand, we have a group (Forest Hill homeowners) looking to block 100% affordable housing in their neighborhood; on the other, we have a group (Plaza 16) that is demanding that a market-rate development be replaced by a 100% affordable building on one of the city’s most bustling transit stops. In the Forest Hill scenario, we had a group of rich homeowners lobbying to protect their capital and comfort by excluding lower-income tenants from their neighborhoods. And in the Mission, we have a marginalized group fighting against being pushed out of their neighborhood by higher-income residents.

The State-level Situation

Over the past year, the California State Legislature, as it has attempted to solve the state’s housing crisis, has pursued a primary strategy of stripping local control from municipalities. The legislature has held up the what happened with wealthy communities like Forest Hill as examples of how the system is broken, painting any attempt to exert local control as anti-housing and unproductive. The first of these laws, proposed by State Senator Scott Wiener, was SB 35, passed last year to allow developers to apply for “by-right” (streamlined) approval for any new zoning-compliant housing project brought forward by a developer, without a discretionary review process. Another attempt to supersede local control was made earlier this year by (again, Wiener’s) SB 827, which would have relaxed local zoning restrictions on housing projects within a 1/2 mile radius of a major transit stop, or a 1/4 mile radius of a stop on a high-quality transit bus corridor. Such a law would have been highly irresponsible, not only given the enormous difference between the two scenarios, but because it would not have addressed the issues of financing and speculation that have fueled the crisis.

Given the current state of housing in California and the current state of the legislature, we can continue to expect non-solutions, particularly by elected officials like Wiener, who have deep financial ties to corporate developers and the real estate lobby. One of the reasons we’re in this crisis to begin with is that decisions about housing in CA have been driven for decades by predatory financiers and developers who view housing as a way to generate profit. Even worse is that as urban areas have been marketed to and become attractive to Gen Xers and Millennials, those same predatory forces have made use of the systematic oppression and exclusion of working class communities of color in determining the shape of urban housing. The needs of these communities have been (at best?) an afterthought, and the bills proposed by Scott Wiener continue the same trend of exclusion. We should be working to empower these communities and help them be part of a planning process that they have long been locked out of. Our solutions to the housing crisis must put race and class to the forefront — otherwise they’re not solutions at all.

Looking Ahead

So how do we put an end to these dynamics, including the very real problem of NIMBY-ism, that prevent new housing from being built? We can start by actually listening to these communities, rather than screaming over them. We can start by working towards reforming laws like Prop 13 that rob the public of billions of dollars, and by repealing article 34 of the California state constitution. These are uphill battles, but they are battles that will result in radical change for those who need it most. Our housing movements should not settle on the same exclusionary principles of yesterday.

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Faiq Raza is the current co-chair of the San Francisco chapter of the DSA and former co-chair of the chapter’s Housing Working Group. He cares about fighting gentrification and is sick of the housing discourse on Twitter.

Susan Marsh is a long-time tenant and anti-gentrification activist and is deeply familiar with the Mission.